Movement on museum walls
A retrospective on choreographer Trisha Brown captures the ephemeral nature of dance
ANDOVER, MASS. — A concern of the performing artist - probably since the first person stood up before the clan to re-create a victory in the hunt - is how to preserve the action after the audience has gone. Unlike paintings, sculptures, photographs, and films, which can be revisited, a movement on stage lives only in memory once the theater lights come down.
"The end product of my work is on a stage which is a disappearing act all its own," says Trisha Brown, the innovative performer and choreographer who has been making dances since 1961.
But a new museum exhibit, "Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue 1961-2001," aims to pin down the ephemeral art of the dance. Currently on display at the Addison Gallery of Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass, the exhibit will also stop in Houston, New York, and Seattle through mid-2004. The traveling show captures the works that Ms. Brown has made with the most significant visual artists and composers of the late 20th century.
Curator Hendel Teicher has mounted a "living" display that brings dance off the stage and onto the walls of the museum. In addition to videos, pictures, and exhibits that re-create some of the sets, dance students perform a weekly show of Brown's works.
The project was nurtured by museum directors Adam Weinberg of The Addison Gallery and Charles Stainback at The Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College. Stainback says "part of our dialogue was the question of, 'How do you organize an exhibition including dance?' "
The most obvious way is to show the dancer's movements through video.
The first image a visitor sees after climbing up the stairs to the second-floor galleries is a large-screen video of the Trisha Brown Dance Company in performance. Other videos stud the large collection of drawings, photographs, artifacts, and costumes, along with related works by Brown's artist collaborators: Nancy Graves, Donald Judd, Fujiko Nakaya, Robert Rauschenberg, and Terry Winters.
The Trisha Brown Dance Company is performing in New York through Sunday in a world première staging of her choreographed version of Franz Schubert's song-cycle "Winterreise," alternating with two programs of repertory.
Two other works now performed in New York are featured prominently in the exhibition: "Set and Reset," the post-modernist landmark that dates from 1982, and the 1999-2000, jazz-infused "El Trilogy."
Launched from a collaboration between Brown, Rauschenberg, and composer Laurie Anderson, "Set and Reset" derives movement cues from Rauschenberg's treatment of the stage that allowed the audience into spaces usually reserved for the performers.
Brown had to deal with transparent set pieces that revealed the dancers' resting - and hiding - places in the wings.
Rauschenberg also created exquisite costumes of translucent fabric airbrushed with icons of an industrial nation, suggesting that life on stage is not so far removed from the affairs of our society. A pair of these costumes are included in the exhibit, along with Rauschenberg collages from the same period.
"Bob took that fabric and made it the canvas of further layers of collage for his own work," says Brown.
A prop created by set designer, Terry Winters, from "Rapture to Leon James" from "El Trilogy" is also among the items on display.
One of the most fascinating sections of the exhibit further underlines the perishable nature of dance. A re-creation of the stage atmosphere from "Opal Loop/Cloud Installation #72503" (1980) by Nakaya, a Japanese artist, who makes her sculptures of fog, is generated in an enclosed space by means of fog nozzles, fans, and heaters.
Projections of the dancers performing Brown's choreography are shown on the pulsating clouds of steam and shadow.
In addition to videotapes of many of the dances, including works from the 1960s when Brown and her company danced outdoors on the roofs of New York buildings, there's a weekly performance by Phillips Academy dance students in the Addison Gallery.
Working with one of Brown's dancers, they learned "Floor of the Forest" (1970), which has them climbing across the ropes threaded through a three-dimensional grid designed by Brown.
This "task dance" assigns them to dress and undress in costume pieces strung on the web, which they must cross without touching the ground. Stainback hopes to include performances by the Skidmore College dance students when the exhibit moves to Saratoga.
"Every exhibit looks different when it travels," says Stainback. "The Addison Gallery is a traditional museum, filled with historical details. The exhibit is shown there in a series of rooms. The Tang is a two-year-old building, much more open, more free-form. It's always a game to see how a traveling exhibit will work in a new space."
According to Brown, the exhibit has meant a chance to "gather the shards of information and titles since the beginning of time. It's rounded up the scope of my work. I see threads of themes, persistent themes, that I didn't recognize before."
• 'Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue, 1961-2001' at Addison Gallery of Art, Andover, Mass., through Jan. 5; Tang Teaching Museum of Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Feb. 1-June 1; Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, July 12- Sept. 4; The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, Oct. 10-Feb. 10, 2004; Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, March 25-July 18, 2004. Brown and her company will be performing in the US and Europe throughout 2003.